Richard Haines reflects on the winding path that led him from a thriving career in fashion design back to his true passion: illustration.
Richard Haines was so close.
He recalls the moment vividly in this episode of Design Matters: He was around the age of 10, and he was looking through a copy of his grandfather’s New York Times. It was the early ’60s. Combing the issue, he was speechless at what he discovered: a series of simple yet incredibly impactful fashion illustrations of Givenchy and Dior collections.
“[I had] such an intense, visceral, emotional reaction to it. Those drawings are exquisite, and they’re everything I’ve ever worked for.”
As a child, he was so close to realizing what his life’s work would be. But it would be decades before he embraced it. Sometimes you have to wait.
Drawing has colored Haines’ life for as long as he can remember. It began as an anomaly to his naval officer father and family, as Haines went about sketching things like flowers and wedding dresses at the age of 5. Over the years it has been many things to him: A coping mechanism and escape as a child when his father became seriously ill. A way to carve out his own identity and universe after pinging around from Iceland to Washington D.C. in his formative years.
Alongside those couture drawings, there was another key early influence: the Lascaux cave paintings in France. As Haines detailed in an interview with the clothing brand GANT, “To me, it’s really the first way of saying, ‘I was here, I saw this, and I’m sharing this information.’ Drawing is a very primal thing.”
He nabbed his first illustration gig as a sophomore in high school, creating an ad for a women’s shop in Virginia that ran in Washingtonian magazine. All the early indicators of a framework for a career were there—so Haines moved to New York City with the intention of being a famous fashion illustrator. But then reality challenged his assumptions: He discovered that in fashion editorial, photography had deposed illustration. He realized that he had never formally studied his would-be craft. He was crippled by self-doubt; each line he drew he obsessively deconstructed and analyzed—is this what people want to see? His parents didn’t think there was a career in fine art. He wanted to please them.
So he turned his back on illustration. He went into fashion design. And though it wasn’t his passion, he excelled at it, building a thriving career and creating work for the likes of J.Crew, Calvin Klein, Sean Combs, Perry Ellis and many others, while making great money and living in a 5th Avenue apartment in Manhattan.
And then something happened. Around 2008, Haines experienced the worst year of his life, or arguably the best—a complete, all-encompassing seismic shift. He was married to a woman, and got divorced. He lost his job in the heyday of the financial crisis. Broke, he left Manhattan and moved to Bushwick in Brooklyn, before it became the hipster paradise it is today.
He was in his 50s and his life had been forcefully, and mercilessly, reset. One wonders if he would have left the safety of his fashion design life on his own accord. Perhaps the upheaval was completely necessary for him to do what he did next—found his calling, finally.
A friend suggested he start a blog. After all, it was free, and he was, well, broke.
It changed everything.
After brainstorming concepts and hooks, he had an epiphany. As he tells Debbie Millman in this episode, it was thus: “Fuck it, I just want to draw. I love living here so much and I see incredible stuff every day. I’m just going to call it ‘What I Saw Today’ and post what I see—or my version of what I see.”
He did. And it resonated with people. Wandering Bushwick, he would sketch men that caught his eye, using wildly simple lines to tell complex stories. His work thrives on omission; with the select details that flow from his hand, we get a complete picture of the subject, and perhaps a hint at how Haines, a master editor, sees the world.
After a lifetime of bottling his talent, it poured neatly. And it earned quick, and wide, acclaim—the salivating dream of every would-be blogger toiling for years in the hopes of such a break. Roping illustration work from Prada, Dries Van Noten, The New York Times and GQ, and live drawing commissions at fashion shows around the world, Haines was a man reborn, and reborn into the most genuine version of himself.
The key to his style?
“I think that it goes back to being 5. To me, a line is the most beautiful thing in the world. It’s all the humanity. It’s pain, pleasure. It’s beauty, it’s not beauty. Those are all the things I see every day in humanity.”
Perhaps life autocorrects. Perhaps it brings balance, works in a cyclical nature. Or perhaps, as Haines has noted, he had to absorb everything he could in the fashion industry to be able to do what he does seemingly with mystic ease today; as he told Port magazine, “When I draw I know exactly where the pocket goes or where the lapel falls because I spent so many years working with pattern makers, being in fittings.”
Sometimes you have to wait.
“I really believe that things happen when they’re ready to happen,” he says in this episode. “I think that if this had happened at 30 or 40 it would be a really different thing. It wasn’t meant to happen.”
Life takes time. Life takes its time. Patience is not a virtue. But perhaps it’s a necessity in the creative arts.